LOS ANGELES (AP) — A wildfire broke out Tuesday and spread at a staggering pace in every direction through drought-parched canyons east of Los Angeles, growing to 14 square miles in a matter of hours and prompting evacuation orders for more than 82,000 of people in mountain communities.
A miles-long line of flames snaked along ridges, racing through chaparral that was dry as tinder after years of drought and days of dry summer heat in the 90s. Flames reached up to 80 feet in the air with tornado-like whirls coming off the main blaze reaching 100 feet, officials said.
The growth was explosive, San Bernardino County fire spokesman Eric Sherwin said.
The fire was roaring through the San Bernardino Mountains, heading generally north but also east and west above the Cajon Pass, and forced the shutdown of a section of Interstate 15, the main highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, leaving commuters stranded for hours.
Mandatory evacuation calls went out to 34,506 homes with more than 82,600 people, Sherwin said.
Some buildings had been lost, Sherwin said. He had no details, but televised images from the fire scene appeared to show at least two homes on fire.
“This fire is burning in significantly different terrains at multiple elevation levels,” Sherwin said.
Evacuated areas included the ski-resort town of Wrightwood, where some 4,500 people live; canyon communities containing clusters of large, scattered ranches; and sprawling high desert communities on the opposite side of the ridges.
Blue Mountain Farms, a horse ranch in Phelan, was in the path of the fire about 60 miles east of Los Angeles — just as it was for another fire in the area a year ago.
“Breathing smoke again, just like last year,” Shannon Anderson, a partner in the ranch, said as she panted into the telephone. “It’s raining ash.”
Ranch hands used hoses to wet down fences and anything else that could burn.
Six firefighters were briefly trapped by flames at a home where the occupants had refused to leave, forcing the crew to protect the house, fire officials said.
“We were fully engulfed in smoke,” county firefighter Cody Anderson told KCBS-TV. “It was really hard just to see your hand in front of your face.”
“We just hunkered down and sat there and waited for the fire to blow over,” he said.
Anderson and another firefighter were treated for minor injuries.
Gov. Jerry Brown quickly declared a state of emergency in the fire area, freeing up special resources and funds for the firefight and recovery.
As that fire surged, a major blaze north of San Francisco was fading, and about 4,000 people in the town of Clearlake were allowed to return home.
Their relief, however, was tempered with anger at a man who authorities believe set the blaze that wiped out several blocks of a small town over the weekend along with 16 smaller fires dating back to last summer.
Investigators in Northern California said Tuesday they had been building a case against the suspected arsonist, 40-year-old construction worker Damin Anthony Pashilk, for more than a year but did not have enough evidence to make an arrest until the weekend blaze ripped through Lower Lake.
Nearly a decade ago, Pashilk was an inmate firefighter while serving time on drug possession and firearms charges, according to California corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters. He was completing a five-year sentence when he was assigned to fight wildfires for four months in 2007.
The fire destroyed 175 homes, Main Street businesses and other structures in the working-class town of Lower Lake.
“What I’d do to him, you don’t want to know,” said Butch Cancilla, who saw his neighbor’s home catch fire as he fled on Sunday. Cancilla still doesn’t know the fate of his own home and spoke at a center for evacuees set up at a high school.
“A lot of people want to hang him high,” his wife, Jennie, added.
An attorney listed as representing Pashilk did not return a call requesting comment. Pashilk is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday.
Roughly 1,600 firefighters were making progress on the blaze as it burned through wilderness. It was 34 percent contained.
Thanawala reported from Lakeport. Associated Press writers Kristin J. Bender in San Francisco, Don Thompson in Sacramento and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.